With the Israeli government having conditionally approved the Palestinian-Israeli “road map” on Sunday, the Arabic press focused on the Bush administration’s efforts to gather more support for the plan.
Most papers report George W. Bush’s intention to visit the Middle East and meet with Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas. Beirut’s Al-Safir led with a report from its Washington correspondent under the headline: “Before Meeting Sharon and Abbas in Aqaba [Jordan] Bush Will Head an Arab Summit in Sharm El Sheikh [Egypt].” The Sharm El Sheikh meeting, scheduled for the first week of June, will reportedly include Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah, and, if it is confirmed, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdallah; the hope is to secure Arab endorsement for the subsequent Bush-Sharon-Abbas meeting in Jordan. The London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat added a twist, suggesting Syrian President Bashar Assad might also show up at Sharm El Sheikh. Another London-based Saudi paper, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, indicated that the final makeup and locations of the meetings had yet to be decided. The paper cut to the essentials in observing, “Bush dispensed with his reservations and will visit the Middle East.” Indeed, the real story is Bush’s readiness, after years of reluctance, to personally involve himself in Middle Eastern diplomacy. He will have some support: The willingness of Arab leaders (particularly Assad if he appears) to consecrate the “road map” suggests they, too, are fed up with the never-ending Palestinian-Israeli conflict, regardless of their misgivings about the plan.
There has been significant flexibility from Assad recently, following his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in mid-May. For example, the Syrian leader has appeared to take a conciliatory attitude on resuming negotiations with Israel on the future of the Golan Heights. The Syrians are also participating in the European Union-Mediterranean summit that began Monday in Crete, the first time they have agreed to attend an EU-Med summit with Israeli representatives present. And on Monday, the Syrian official daily Teshreen published parts of an interview Assad gave Reuters, where he took a restrictive view of Syrian support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah. As the paper noted: “[Assad affirmed] Syria’s continuing support for Hezbollah, as long as its operations are limited to defending Lebanon against Israeli threats.” This might not have seemed like much, but it was Assad’s way of distancing himself from Hezbollah’s ambition to play a regional role in supporting the Palestinian intifada (Israel last week captured an alleged Hezbollah bomb-maker) and anti-American efforts in Iraq. Assad’s statement surely surprised the militant group, which on Sunday commemorated the third anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon that it largely helped bring about.
Arab papers virtually ignored another story from Syria: the release Sunday of the Damascus bureau chiefof Al-Hayat, Ibrahim Hamidi, after five months in detention. Hamidi, a Syrian, was imprisoned last December for writing an article that embarrassed Assad. His arrest provoked a muted outcry, partly because the often politically connected Arab press avoids focusing on human rights abuses in friendly countries; partly, too, because Hamidi and Al-Hayat discouraged publicity, fearing it would make the situation worse. The low-key approach apparently paid off, since the expectation in Damascus had been that Hamidi would spend several more months in jail. In its Monday edition, Al-Hayat mentioned the release in a few laconic phrases.
Iraq remained on the front page of most Middle Eastern papers, with many reporting that two American soldiers were killed yesterday in a spate of attacks. Beirut’s English-language Daily Star found irony in the deaths, noting they came as the “U.S. civilian administrator, Paul Bremer, said that occupying forces have done a great deal to re-establish stability.” Several papers also reported the arrest of a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, whom Al-Sharq al-Awsat recalled is the second husband of the former Iraqi leader’s eldest daughter. Her first husband was the notorious Hussein Kamel Hassan, the onetime overseer of Iraq’s weapons programs who was killed in 1996 after defecting to Jordan and then returning home. The paper also quoted unidentified former Iraqi officials as claiming that Saddam’s fall had been precipitated by the betrayal of three of his cousins. It referred to an article in France’s weekly Journal du Dimanche naming one of the alleged culprits, Gen. Maher Sufyan Jgheib al-Takriti, a senior Special Republican Guard commander, who was purportedly paid millions of dollars for his efforts before being bundled out of Iraq. Versions of the story keep resurfacing in the Arab press, which suggests it might actually have some merit.